essays & posts
After the Climate March: A Letter to Joe
Paula Downey, downey youell associates
March 18 ∼ 9 minute read
In an age of climate collapse, what do we say to our children?
Just before students from 123 countries and over 2,000 cities across the planet took to the streets as part of the Schools Strike 4 Climate movement protesting my generation’s complete inertia on the climate crisis, one mother sent an S.O.S. to friends and contacts across the world.
Concerned about her son, Joe, she sought our advice.
“Joe is your straightforward eighteen year old bloke, mainly interested in alcohol and girls and the rugby team. He’s not one of the ‘geeks’ who are environmental activists (a very small number at his school) but is a thoughtful and caring fella.
He’s concerned about global warming and inspired by Greta Thunberg and appalled how thoughtless and shit we all seem to be en masse to each other, to animals and to the environment. But he’s feeling powerless and getting a lot of kickback from pals about going on the climate marches and what they can realistically do.
He says to me: “The trouble is, it’s all very well saying that your generation have fucked up, and you’re really sorry. And now we have to pull it out of the bag. But it’s just too big. Where do we even start? I’m not going to turn vegan, and if me and my mates recycle our bottles it doesn’t make the most minuscule amount of difference.”
Hard at work for his mocks, Joe uses a familiar analogy.
“It feels like the exam is coming up, you know you haven’t done enough work, and of course the logical solution is to work day and night, to try and pull something back at the last minute. But human nature says ‘I’m already going to fail, so why bother? What’s the point in even trying?”
His mother’s tried talking with him, but it’s not working.
“I don’t feel I am being that helpful or inspiring. I really want to give him two or three things he can ‘just do’. Meaningful practical things.
Students ‘Striking 4 Climate’ outside Ireland’s Government Buildings —15 March 2019
Photograph: Paula Downey
A few days later on March 15th, mingling with a deafening throng more than eleven thousand strong that descended upon Ireland’s parliament building — some as young as four years old — I felt tears of pride and gratitude welling up. “Thank you!” I found myself calling out to youngsters in school uniforms, energetically stabbing the air with their banners-of-truth. “Thank you for doing this!”
These student marches are not only inspiring. They’re vital. They’ve managed to cut through media noise and deadening bureaucracy. They’re the latest step in a decades-long attempt to raise to popular consciousness our existential human crisis.
And for that reason alone, Striking 4 Climate matters.
But the thing is, the challenge is not the change. It never is. Change happens somewhere else.
That’s why I wrote this letter to a young man I have never met.
I’ve been thinking about the email your mum wrote, and I’d like to respond.
The questions you ask are questions for all of us. The problems we’re facing feel increasingly overwhelming. It’s all too big. Where do we even start? Why bother?
The truth is, it’s not looking good, Joe.
It’s late. Perhaps too late?
Perhaps it’s too late to make the big difference we could have made?
Perhaps it’s all over?
Perhaps we’re in the end game?
Perhaps we’re dying?
If that’s the case, then the big question we have to ask — perhaps the only question worth asking, is: how do we want to live?
How do you want to live? What do you want your life to be for?
That question will take a long time to answer, Joe. And the answers will change or be refined over time. That’s life. It’s always been that way. But you have a head start on me. I was in my thirties before I began to wake up to what is happening in our world and I expect to slide into my grave still asking myself,
Is this how I want to live?
Is this good enough?
Are my choices brave enough?
What’s my next step?
What can I do… now?
And there are no right answers to questions like these.
No silver bullet.
It’s not that simple, I’m afraid.
This is the price of being alive and human and conscious at this time in our history.
You and me. We have to keep asking these questions.
And we need to keep finding better and better answers.
I appreciate that you feel small and puny relative to the issues.
I feel small too.
Whenever you feel small, try to remember the truth:
You are at the centre of the universe.
Despite the way we tend to talk about it, and despite all appearances to the contrary, life is not some grand hierarchy. Or some great big machine with some big lever that someone somewhere is pulling and pushing to make stuff happen.
It’s a web.
An infinite web of connection.
Everything’s connected to everything else and everything changes everything else.
Now that may not sound like much, Joe. But that’s really amazing because it means that what you do (and what I do) really, really matters.
There’s no small act.
We keep waiting for the ‘powerful people’ on the so-called top to get their shit together. But there are no more powerful people than you or me. None. And even people in what seem like the most powerful positions feel completely powerless in relation to these enormous issues. Though they never ever admit it.
So, don’t be fooled, Joe.
Don’t be fooled by TV and newspapers that shine their light on the so-called powerful people. Don’t let the mirage of other people’s power steal your own. Greta Thunberg is a perfect example of the power of the so-called powerless.
But you don’t even have to step out as she did to make a real difference.
Because you’re already making a difference.
The question is, what’s the difference you’re making?
And what difference do you want to make?
Think about what you buy.
Every Euro/Pound/Deutsche Mark/Dollar/Kroner/Franc is a vote. It’s a vote for something. More powerful perhaps than our democratic vote. Because it allows us to vote every single day. Every time we buy t-shirts or sneakers or jeans or soft drinks or fast food or cheap food or local food … we’re voting for or against things like exploitation, slavery, cruelty, inequality…
What are you voting for, Joe?
Ask yourself that question every time you push notes or coins or a card across a counter.
Never ever stop asking yourself that question.
And when you don’t like the answer, vote differently.
Buy less. Consume less.
It’s hard to get your head around just how much you and I have and consume relative to those who have far too little. Our culture subtly educates us to believe we don’t have enough. That who we are is what we have. It teaches us to rank ourselves and each other by the stuff we own or wear. And that’s bullshit.
I’ve discovered that buying less means saving your resources, your attention and your time for something else.
It allows you to step back from the culture that surrounds you and sucks you in … and allows you to take time and look at the world around you from a distance.
Distance gives you a clearer view.
It allows you to think your own thoughts.
Your own independent mind is priceless, Joe.
Don’t give your culture squatting rights in your life.
See things for yourself.
Work things out for yourself.
Maintaining an independent mind is something really, really important you can do right now.
There’s only one you.
One version of you.
One set of gifts and talents that has arrived on this Earth.
The particular recipe of gifts that is ‘Joe’ will never ever be here on Earth again.
What gifts are waiting inside you? And how do you want to use them?
What are you going to put yourself and your life in service to?
I’ve been thinking about this one for a long, long time, Joe. The funny thing is, as I’ve focused on my gifts… and as I’ve simply refused to put those gifts in service to what I don’t believe in, or to work for companies or endeavors that I know are damaging, the Universe has stepped in … and I’ve been gifted opportunities to develop and grow myself in ways and in places I never would have imagined. I’ve been given a chance to discover and get better at doing work I never ever planned to do and yet it’s work I’m made for and work I’m proud of.
And it has certainly made all the difference in my life to refuse to do work that I’m ashamed of. To choose instead to go without or to stay a little poorer rather than do dishonorable work.
I honestly believe work is where most of us make the biggest difference in the world. Because our work shapes the world. It doesn’t matter how lowly or lofty that work feels… our work matters.
So, one of the really important things you can do at this amazing choice-point in your life, is to think about the world our human species is making, the mistakes we’ve made, the things we need to do to correct those mistakes or to mitigate their worst effects — and those mistakes are everywhere, from farming to food to finance to education to transport to energy to the way we govern and manage pretty much everything — and then think about your gifts and where they meet that world.
Whatever happens now, no matter how bad it’s going to get — and things are looking pretty bad — it’s going to take every single one of us to maintain the best possible world we can.
We’re going to need aware, conscious, courageous, moral, intentional, skillful, stubborn, steadfast people in every single walk of life… every one of them working from a different handbook of how life works.
Working with a different, truer set of rules.
You can be one of them, Joe.
You just need to be aware of how life really works.
You just need to know that it’s not a machine.
It’s a web of connection.
A web of relationship, that makes itself and changes itself.
That despite how we speak about things, we are not in charge of the machine; we’re participants in this living web, living alongside each other and inside something much, much larger than ourselves.
Something that works in a particular way.
The simple fact that we — you — are not separate means we — you — can never do only one thing.
Everything we do has consequences.
Almost all of them invisible to us.
Consequences we will never ever see or hear or know about.
Consequences that are as real as the nose on your face and the air you breathe through it.
knowing all of this,
is to go into the world and into your work
with that head on your shoulders
knowing that with every step you take and everything you do
you’re participating in a web of life
that is making and changing itself.
knowing all of this,
you can make the biggest difference of all:
sign up to make the world
than it is now.
We have to remake the world.
We all have to remake the world.
Which piece of the world do you want to remake, Joe?
You have your whole life stretching ahead of you.
You lucky, lucky thing!
You have the gift of time and foresight.
The best thing you can do is not lose faith in yourself, or in other human beings.
I’ve learned that most people are good people stuck in bad systems.
Bad systems they don’t know how to change or don’t believe they can change.
We have made the systems we work inside.
We’ve made the systems that are destroying life on Earth because we ignored Earth’s living systems.
And because we made them, we can change them.
We just have to decide to.
The most important thing you can do is to use yourself — your energy, your life, and your choices — to put right what we have put wrong.
In your own way.
In your own place.
With your own life.
With all of yourself.
Good luck Joe, with your life and what you make of it.
Be fearlessly ambitious
for the world,
for your fellow human beings,
and for yourself.
And go well.
Now and then we observe the world through the lens of living systems and our CultureWork perspective.
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